The words they dare not speak

For reasons that remain obscure, our governments seem incapable of facing the climate demon

California burning: coastal fires north of Los Angeles at the weekend. PHOTO Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

California burning: coastal fires north of Los Angeles at the weekend. PHOTO Robyn Beck / AFP – Getty Images


As the bone-dry desert kingdom of Jordan suffers its second deadly flash-flood in a fortnight, a placid late autumn in California is suddenly overwhelmed by apocalyptic wildfire. Both are telling signs of a shifting global climate.

People generally seem to recognise this. In countries that measure public opinion, supporters of strong mitigating action are a growing majority. Yet the body politic seems to have stopped trying. In the US mid-term elections last week climate rated barely a mention.

Three years ago the world agreed in Paris to do everything necessary to avoid a dangerous future climate. Last month the world scientific community spelt out that what was needed for this: a huge, unprecedented global effort to reduce emissions, starting now.

And what has been the response of the world’s political elites? A small flurry of claim and counter-claim, then silence. In the unspoken rules of these circles, climate would now seem to be a fully-fledged taboo.

The main responsibility for this appalling state of affairs lies with nation-states and the political and commercial elites whose decisions drive the global economy from the great Northern Hemisphere commercial hubs, led by the likes of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.

But that doesn’t absolve the rest of us. This is a collective culpability, shared by every nation, every party, every religious belief and ideology, every voter. In Australia it includes not just present national and state leaders, but others who came before.

For over two decades the general thrust of Australian climate policy has been not to tell the story as it is, but to prevent scrutiny of our shameful inaction. The timeline of these barren years – dominated by spin, deception, concealment and hubris – makes depressing reading:

1997: Australia refuses to sign the Kyoto agreement to reduce carbon emissions unless it is allowed to disguise its own increased emissions using data from “avoided” land clearing. That allows Australia to increase actual emissions by 28 per cent over the next 15 years.

2002-07: After declaring he will not ratify Kyoto, John Howard continues to avoid any climate policy commitment until faced with imminent electoral defeat.

2007-09: In pursuit of an emissions trading scheme Kevin Rudd dons the climate leadership mantle, then loses it with graceless political point-scoring against opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

2009-12: On becoming Liberal leader Tony Abbott declares he will oppose a price on carbon. The Greens reject Rudd’s legislation because it doesn’t meet their top-shelf standards. Julia Gillard topples Rudd, wins an election by a whisker and sets up a national carbon price scheme.

2013-14: Abbott wins office and abolishes carbon pricing, paying lip-service to climate policy with a fixed-budget “direct action” scheme mainly supporting tree-growing. Emissions that had been curbed under a carbon tax begin to rise again, a trajectory that still holds today.

2015-18: Deposing Abbott in 2015, Turnbull seeks a muted, heavily disguised carbon price signal in the form of the National Energy Guarantee, but opposition from a small party rump sees it killed off ahead of Turnbull’s party-room defeat.

2017-18: Scott Morrison’s climate policy, such as it is, carries the lead weight of his parliamentary game with a lump of coal and his openness to spending public money on coal-fired power.

In Tasmania, the dying months of Paul Lennon’s premiership saw a 2008 act of parliament purporting to guide our island’s climate policies for half a century, but it was an empty shell that needed filling with solid policies and actions.

That was not to be. Successive governments led by David Bartlett, Lara Giddings and Will Hodgman have hardly begun to address the reality of Tasmania’s unchanging emission levels.

Over the years a handful of public servants, notably the small climate group within the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and even one or two ministers have put some effort into making government more climate-friendly, but with little of substance to show for it.

Well-considered climate strategies by successive ministers Cassy O’Connor and Matthew Groom have failed to realise their promise. They made barely a ripple among the political and bureaucratic elite who pull the budgetary levers, and little of substance has flowed from them.

Kyoto’s land-use provisions have bedevilled carbon accounting here as well as nationally. Tasmanian governments have used data from unharvested forests to claim climate leadership while concealing a general failure to reduce actual fossil-fuel emissions.

Effective climate policy calls for the whole of government – roots, trunk, branches, leaves… the lot – to completely transform the way it functions. It demands leaders in both government and business who acknowledge the absolute necessity and priority of doing all in our power to cut emissions.

Instead, leaders have avoided even talking about climate change. Here and everywhere, a conspiracy of silence seems to have formed around it, as if our bold, brave leaders are suddenly confronted with the Black Death.

Why is this? What are they afraid of? Are they incapable of standing up and calling this crisis for what it is – a real and present threat to the future of humanity everywhere? Is the whole thing too big for them?

Or is the reason something closer to home, perhaps? Is their real fear focused on their peers, the people who look over their shoulders, murmur about them in the corridors, complain about them to radio shock-jocks and build resentment against them within their party?

One thing is certain. If Scott Morrison and Will Hodgman do have a change of heart, if they finally decide to defy the naysayers in their party and face the climate demon, they will find all the support they need out there in the wider voting public.

Acting decisively to mitigate climate change has always had science solidly behind it. Now we can add to that the voting public. With those on your side, how could you possibly lose?

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